Interview: Sushi Chef Bryan Sekine
The Secrets of Sushi with Bryan Sekine
By Melissa Slaughter
Bryan Sekine is my brother… not my biological brother. He’s my high school Hapa brother. We met our freshman year at Ponca City High. Po’ High for short; couldn’t afford the second “O” or “R.” Two Hapa kids in a podunk Oklahoman town.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that he’s like my brother. We called each other “Bro” and “Sis” through all of high school. Both our moms are named Nora; both of us are half-Japanese. After high school, we went our separate ways and have only reconnected in the past few years thanks to the magic of social media. We live states apart—Bryan is in a larger city now (Oklahoma City), and I’m on the East Coast in New York City. When we caught up for Hapa Mag, we talked less like siblings and more like the old friends we are.
Since I last saw Bryan many years ago, he’s transformed himself into a sushi chef and a sustainable fishing educator. His YouTube channel, “Secrets of Sushi,” has a steady fan base and he’s taught classes on the art of making sushi. For Hapa Mag’s one-year anniversary, he created a specialty roll. But for this issue, he was kind enough to give his former fake sister a call to discuss sushi, sustainability, and growing up Hapa in Oklahoma.
What makes you Hapa?
I am half-Japanese. So my father is full-blood Japanese and my mother is Caucasian. I am quite literally half-Japanese.
I definitely got out of a class once 'cause I said you were my brother and I had to go. It was Ms.Tatum's English class sophomore year.
I definitely should have taken advantage of it a lot more!
We should have taken advantage of it a lot more, but that's OK. So moving on to when things get more interesting. You currently run the “Secrets of Sushi.” Hapa Mag featured your Hapa Roll in our last issue (which was our one-year anniversary issue). What made you get interested in sushi?
So coincidentally this does link back to our high school days. I think my first real exposure with making sushi was at your house.
I told my mom that!
Your mom taught me how to make sushi rice for the first time. My mom technically knew how to do it, but she never really made it at home. So when your mom was teaching me about vinegared rice, I was interested. Initially, I didn't like vinegared rice just 'cause I didn't like vinegar. But after we made the sushi, I really enjoyed it and found out that you couldn't really taste the vinegar that much once all the ingredients were added.
But it kind of piqued my curiosity because—being that you and I were the only two Japanese [kids in our high school]—it seemed like if we didn't know everything about our culture, then no one did. We were kind of forced to be our own cultural ambassadors for everyone. And for whatever reason, I have always just liked Japanese culture. I mean, obviously, there’s good parts and bad parts. But one of the things I liked the most was the food. I remember growing up, my mom would cook a bunch of awesome Japanese food for me. But, I didn't really get into to sushi specifically until I was in college.
So I was majoring in video game design and it had absolutely nothing to do with sushi, but I needed a part-time job while I was in school just to help pay bills. There was a sushi restaurant within walking distance of my apartment. One day, without them even having a sign saying that they were hiring or that they needed chefs, I just walked in and said, “Hey, I'm half-Japanese. I'm looking to become a sushi chef. Will you guys train me?” And they said, “Coincidentally, we’re in dire need of a chef. So can you start tomorrow?”
I found that the more I learned about sushi and all the different steps and the ingredient preparation, the more I sort of fell in love with it. I realized it was a totally separate, different type of cuisine, and there were things that we do in the sushi industry that no other food-service industry does because it’s very specific to that particular ingredient, or that particular fish, or that particular part of assembling everything all together. So, I really became fascinated with it at that point.
And at what point did you start getting interested in sustainable sushi? Because it’s a big part of your Secrets of Sushi brand.
Back in 2011, when the tsunami hit Fukushima that was kind of a turning point… [Editor’s Note: Bryan's family is fine.] When I first heard… the radiation was leaking into the ocean, I started doing some research about how radiation affects sea life, how quickly we see some of the negative side effects.
It is a little bit faster than what I was expecting. I was thinking maybe 10 years from now you might see some genetic mutations or like fish with three eyes or something like that. But it actually starts affecting the fish almost immediately because it's dumped directly into their environment.
It got me onto this kick about learning about seafood populations, and learning about how best fishing practices affect said populations. I started kind of going down this rabbit hole about how much the sushi industry specifically has been damaging the environment. Because sushi sort of introduced a lot of different types of seafood. Prior, people in the States might not have ever consumed eel. They might have never consumed octopus. But when sushi came over to the U.S. [in the early 1900s to mid-1900s], it was negatively impactful on the seafood populations.
I want sushi to continue well into the future. I want to be able to talk to my grandchildren about sushi. I started to do as much research as I could, started reading up on things like the sustainable Seafood Watch. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch program. They put out reports every year about different populations and what's considered to be best practices for buyers.)
So how did “Secrets of Sushi” start? I realize I'm working my way backwards.
No problem! So, “Secrets of Sushi” started probably 2010, or maybe early 2011. I'm not sure officially. At the time, I had a friend that was really gung-ho about the idea of making passive income, earning income online by being a YouTuber or a blogger or some sort of content creator. One night, we were sitting down thinking about what kind of content we could create to generate ad revenue. And so he was like, “Bryan, you've got a really easy one because you're a sushi chef and there's not many sushi chefs in the world.” And I was like, “Holy crap, you're right!”
Plus, I really enjoyed talking to the customers and answering their questions, so we got to talking about how I could better do that. I started with the website and I was just making pretty simple tutorials using pictures and text and I was really nervous about getting in front of the camera. For about two years, all I did was exclusively write articles about different recipes and different preparation techniques that I knew, and then just some informational articles about the different types of seafood and whether or not they were sustainable. After a few years of doing that, I decided that I needed to buckle down and get in front of the camera. You can only learn so much about cooking just by looking at pictures and reading text. There's thousands of sushi cookbooks, but that doesn't necessarily teach someone how to do it. So I decided that video had to be the way to go. I started making videos and that's been a lot of fun, but it's also been very challenging.
I was gonna say it's not really passive, it's a very active form of creation.
Yes. I knew that making videos was gonna be difficult because I did a little bit of video editing and production in college. But I didn't fully grasp how difficult this would be for one person… One video could take me like 10 hours, easily.
How has being Hapa influenced your decision to make sushi? You mentioned earlier that you had to be every Asian for everybody because there were so few people of Asian descent in our tiny little town.
I'd say it's a big influence. When we were growing up, I don't know about you personally but I did experience a bit of racial biases. By the time I finished high school, I felt kind of responsible for being an ambassador for my culture, and I liked teaching people and I liked sharing what I knew and I liked cooking.
I think later on I realized that sushi specifically, as far as Japanese food goes, is like the perfect cuisine to represent being Hapa. Because originally it comes from Japan, it has a huge cultural significance. But once it made it to the West, it changed very drastically.
I got to kind of come in at almost like the peak of the wave, just before the wave crashed and sushi exploded in this huge thing, like sushi burritos and sushi pizza and all of that stuff... just before it became mega popular. That is when I started training. So it's been a very fun experience to be able to share and teach the Western style of sushi, but also to teach people the Eastern style of sushi. Like how the traditional Japanese methods were done versus putting eight sauces and 14 ingredients into a single sushi roll.
I think now it affects me more because I have two different perspectives. I feel two different cultural importances with each one, so I think it's nice to be able to sympathize with the traditional but fundamentals of sushi. But also sympathize with people that really love to eat all the tempura-fried, sauce-covered rolls as well.
How has that influenced how you've looked at sushi and created your business, and do you have any advice for people who kind of want to follow in your footsteps, and experience their culture and then be cultural ambassadors themselves?
As far as being able to give advice to people who are following in our footsteps. I would definitely say that the sooner you can get started the better. I feel like if people want to be cultural ambassadors, they should find something that really interests them. Someone said that outside of a 100-mile radius, you're really only known for one thing. So find whatever one thing that is and really latch onto it. If you like fashion, or you really like cosmetics, you can be Hapa and be a brand rep for all of that.
I like to tell people it's OK as a cultural ambassador to say that you don't know what something is. Someone asks you a question about your culture, you don't have to know the answer. Just like, “You know what, I don't know I've never learned about that aspect of it.” You don't have to feel like you know everything.
But if you want to be a Hapa content creator, I also highly encourage that. I think creating content is amazing and I think it's the best way to generate a passive income. And, it's a lot of fun. If you are a “creative,” it's a great avenue to go down because every day is gonna be different. You're always gonna learn something new.
And I think, as a Hapa, we need more Hapa representation in the content creation world. I definitely encourage people, if they're reading this interview and they want to collaborate, I'm always down.
*This piece has been edited for length and flow.
End of Interview
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.